How supermarkets could take the lead in improving public health

As UK celebrity chef and child food education campaigner Jamie Oliver describes in this TED talk, the leading cause of death in the US and most other Western countries - heart disease - is largely preventable through changes in diet and lifestyle. The same goes for obesity, which is linked to cardiovascular disease as well as diabetes and cancer and has risen consistently over the past 60 years to reach epidemic proportions, despite (or some would argue at least partly because of) the rise of low-fat diets. It seems crazy when you think about it - if they wanted to, people could live longer, better quality lives, without the need for costly medication. So why don't they? 

There are two reasons for this strange situation. Of course, there's the natural human tendency to prioritise short-term pleasure ahead of potential negative longer-term consequences. However, when the latter are made clear enough, people do react, as shown by the sharp fall in the number of regular smokers in the developed world over the past 60 years. This leads to the second reason, which is (as Jamie Oliver demonstrates in his video) a deplorable lack of understanding among the general public as to what food is or isn't good for you. This isn't so surprising given the confusing and often contradictory advice not just in the media but also from health and nutrition experts and government bodies, which is sometimes based on flawed studies or outdated science. 

Jamie Oliver's solution is to teach kids about food at school, so they grow up knowing how to choose and prepare simple, tasty, healthy meals. Although this is an admirable goal that should be achievable, why limit such education to children? Supermarkets could and should take more responsibility for educating their customers about the products they are selling. This would not only improve the lives of customers, but also those whose jobs are currently limited to boring, relatively unrewarding jobs such as restocking shelves and working at the checkout. Given the potential to reduce ever-growing healthcare costs through better education at the point of sale, supermarkets should also be able to ask for government funding to support investment in training staff to help customers help themselves to eat more healthily. 

What a revolutionary, crazy idea - that staff in stores should know more about what they are selling than their customers! Actually, what is really crazy is that food, which can have such a major impact on the quality of our lives, is virtually the only retail sector where this is not yet the case. 



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